Ike Davis’ Small Adjustments at the Plate Has Led to His Improved Results

June 18, 2012

With the New York Mets surprising most people around the game by playing solid baseball and using mostly young kids who are making minimum salaries, one hitter who wasn’t up to the standards of Mets fans was first baseman Ike Davis.

All the frustration on the talk radio shows and in the online media was that Davis should be sent down. The biggest reason was that the Mets were competing for first place, and after Davis slumped through a 1-18 stretch (8 Ks) which lowered his slash line to .158/.234/.273/.507 OPS, fans wanted Ike sent down to the minor leagues.

New York fans usually smell blood in the water towards a player after an 0-4 game in spring training, so this Davis futility was like a True Blood movie premiere.

The talk of sending Davis down had been around for a couple of weeks, but the Mets brass insisted Davis was staying with the parent club.

Since that 1 for 18 slide, Davis has gone on an eight game hitting streak, going 11-23 with two doubles, a home run and 7 RBI. He has had big hits within this span, including the double in the final game of the series against the Yankees and last Thursday’s RBI single against Tampa Bay which gave the Mets a 4-3 lead.

Hitting takes talent, but all hitters can improve if they do the correct things necessary for hitting. These include not drifting, keeping the hands “quiet,” having a short/quick swing and staying balanced. What Ike was doing for the majority of the early season was exactly the opposite. He was moving to the ball, excessively hitching his hands and pressing forward with his upper body.

During his hitting streak Ike just didn’t “start hitting.” He changed his approach to what he was originally doing, one that gives him a greater chance for success. This proper approach makes hitters successful at every level, from the major leagues all the way down to the Little Leagues.

When the ball is about to be released by the pitcher, the hitter begins his “load” to begin his swing. You have to go back in order to go forward. This is similar to having to bend your legs and squat down before you jump up in the air. The load could be a very slight weight shift to the back leg and small movement of the hands back, or it can be just a small toe tap and slight inward turn. An example of a near perfect load is what Curtis Granderson does or what Albert Pujols does.

DRIFTING

The hitter then takes his stride forward, gets his foot down (hands must stay back), recognizes the pitch and if he likes it, takes his swing. This process is so fast (less than a half-second), that all the movements must be in synch to make it work. If any part of the timing is off, hitting the ball hard will almost never happen.

The front leg must be solid, giving a sturdy base and the hitter’s weight must be against the front leg, not on top or over the front leg.

What Ike was doing was moving his body too far forward over his front foot, with his upper body pushing forward over his front leg. When the hitter moves forward towards the ball onto the front leg, it is known as drifting.

When many hitters get into a slump, drifting to the ball is one of the main reasons.

The more a hitter stands tall and almost upright in the batter’s box, the more susceptible he is to drifting. Ike used to be really tall in his stance, with no flex or bending of his knees. Now his knees are more flexed and his stance is slightly wider.

Just as important is that a hitter needs to wait on the ball and not move towards the pitch. I tell young hitters all the time to “wait for the pitch to get to you” and don’t go out to hit it. The ball will eventually get to your hitting zone. Ike was going out to get the ball and was not waiting for the ball to get to him.

Moving towards the ball forces the head to move, in essence making the ball appear faster.

Ike began to wait on the ball and hit against his front leg, not on it over it. Drifting to the ball curtails a hitters power.  Since the hitters weight is already forward, his legs are taken out of the swing. A hitter can’t rotate his hips as much, and power is derived primarily from hip rotation and lower body force. The force won’t be with you if the hitters weight is already forward.

With Ike drifting forward and not waiting on the ball, it led to a very weak swing, using mostly his arms, and not using his hands and legs. Good hitters hit with their hands, not their arms. With Ike not staying back and him having to reach for the ball (especially the ball away), Ike’s hands were extended away from his body and he began to roll over the ball.

That is why so many pitches turned into harmless ground balls to the right side. Robinson Cano did the same “rolling over” early in the season, too, when he was slumping.

A hitter needs his hands tight to the body to generate more power. Think about the last time you performed dumbbell curls for your biceps. Did you have your elbows away from your body or close to your body? They were close to the body, allowing you more strength to lift more weight. A hitter who keeps his hands tight to the body (think Cano and Granderson), generally have more bat speed, use their legs more and have more power. This is the hitting process incorporated by Kevin Long.

This is a video of Granderson’s home run against the Washington Nationals this past weekend. Contact is made at the four-second mark of that video on MLB.com. Pause it there. Check out how tight the hands (and back elbow) are to his body, allowing the Grandy Man (who also uses great lower body torque) to get on top of and drive a high fastball. His balance is perfect and there is no drift of the weight forward.

EXCESS HAND MOVEMENT

Ike had a pretty severe hitch in his swing, a pre-swing up and down movement with his hands, exacerbated by a circular motion. While hitches are mostly bad, all hitches aren’t necessarily problematic. Barry Bonds had a hitch, but he ended up getting his hands in the power position when the ball was on its way. Granderson has some excess movement, too, but like Bonds he has his hands set when the pitch is released.  

Davis rarely got his hands set before the ball arrived.

Slight hand movement is good as it helps ease tension in the upper body, but excess movement is often not good. Ike’s hitch led to a timing issue where his hands were still moving when the ball was released and he wasn’t able to get the bat to the ball quickly enough.

Combined with his drifting, Ike was in no position to drive the ball.

With these hitting issues, the only pitch you can hit is the pitch over the plate, as hard stuff inside “gets in your kitchen,” and the result is a swinging strike or jam shot. Hitters then tend to look for only pitches over the plate and take those inside pitches.

At the beginning of his career, Ike had movement but not the severe hitch he had earlier this year. Now, while some up and down movement is still there, Ike has lessened his hitch and his hands are mostly finished moving when the ball is released. I would still rather have Davis eliminate the hitch completely (its one of the easier “faults” to fix), and like Granderson does, having only a slight movement back. This would allow his hands to be even quicker on fastballs up and on the inside part of the plate.

BALANCE

When Ike was drifting out forward and had his arms move out over the plate, many times his upper body bent forward at the waist, leaving Davis is an unbalanced position. Hitting coaches call this “a forward press with torso.”

This forward movement, which is different from drifting, further deceased his ability to hit for power. When a hitter takes his stride, whether it be an actual movement forward of a couple of inches or a lifting of his front foot up and down (like Granderson and Pujols), the upper body must be on top of the lower body. This allows the hitter to be balanced before, during and after the swing.

Balance, in addition to not drifting, is important to help generate power with the legs.

In proper balance, think of the hitter as a building with a steeple (upper body) on top of the foundation (the legs). The midpoint is the waist. Throughout the swing, the steeple always needs to stay on top of its foundation. If it doesn’t, the foundation cannot support the steeple, and the building becomes weak.

If the hitter doesn’t stay balanced, the body is not strong throughout the swing.

As mentioned earlier, Ike is more flexed in his knees to help stop his drifting. Staying balanced is also easier if the knees are flexed. Ike now has a slightly wider stance with his knees flexed (like Granderson and Pujols) which helps control drift and balance, leading to better contact and more power.

See how precise hitting a baseball is? One hitting fault can create more faults, which creates havoc with the chain of events a hitter needs to have success.

I remember when I was in the last years of playing baseball ( I was 42). I found myself always drifting to the ball and getting chewed up inside and had to “cheat” with my swing to hit the good fastball. With the help of Lenny Webster, former major leaguer and hitting instructor, he helped me widen my stance, sit down more (like Pujols does), which eliminated my drift. I could then wait on the ball more, and I began to hit for more power.

Just like Ike Davis has done, I made adjustments to be a better hitter.

Good hitters really don’t change anything major to their swings; they just make little adjustments along the way.

Look at Ike earlier this season against Tim Lincecum. (He is shown at the 15 and 25 second marks.) Remember this game of two Ks and the big double play? Ike was taller, drifted forward and although he was balanced, he took inside fastballs for both Ks which he couldn’t handle with the excess hand movement. He was looking for pitches over the plate he could handle.

Now look at Davis last week against Tampa Bay: The adjustments are slight, but the knee flex is there, as is a slightly wider stance, improving his balance and helping eliminate the drifting.

How about this game-tying double against the Yankees?  The hand movement is there, but the hands get set in time, he doesn’t drift forward and his swing balance is perfect.

I am surprised the Mets hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, didn’t change these faults with Davis earlier, but it is very difficult to change hitters from their lifelong habits. Especially major league hitters who have had success doing what they “have always done.” Hudgens is a well-respected hitting coach. In addition, as the old saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

The reason why Long has had success with guys like Granderson, Cano, Nick Swisher and Raul Ibanez is they were likely willing students receptive to making changes. These changes do not happen overnight.

It might be that these slight adjustments made by Davis were weeks in the making, which would be a credit to both he and Hudgens. I still would like to see Davis eliminate more hand movements and get his hands tighter to his body to generate a shorter bat path to the ball. But right now, Davis is moving in the right direction, which will help him produce more in the Mets lineup.

And keep him out of Buffalo.

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Jesus Montero: An Overall Analysis

September 11, 2011

Resisting the urge and fan demands to get a starting pitcher at the trading deadline, New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman stuck to his guns and refused to trade a package of prospects for less than a sure thing pitcher. This would be a pitcher who undoubtedly would solidify the Yankees to win another World Series.

Headlining any package for a stating pitcher was Jesus Montero, a catcher built into first baseman/DH body. Cashman refused to include Montero and others for Ubaldo Jimenez, the 2011 deadlines top available starting pitcher. While Cashman did offer Montero last season to the Seattle Mariners for Cliff Lee, Cashman rightfully felt that Lee’s immense talent would put the Yankees over  top while Jimenez would not improve the Yankees that much.

After Jimenez was traded to the Cleveland Indians, he has not really set the Mistake by the Lake on fire, with an ERA, WHIP and HR rate higher than what he put up in the National League.

Cashman always has said that Montero, with his tremendous opposite field power, was a middle of the order bat well-suited for Yankee Stadium and its shorter right field power alley. Middle of the order power hitters are just as tough to find as top starting pitchers. So far, Cashman has been proved prophetic.

It is very easy to state that Jesus Montero has had a nice beginning to his major league career. With seven hits in his first 20 at bats including three home runs, the casual fan acknowledges Montero’s sturdy exploits.

But the little things he does at the plate are the most impressive. The Yankee fan has heard for quite a few years that this kid was special when it came to his ability to hit the baseball. He has very quick hands and a good knowledge of the strike zone. But what Montero has shown in his first half-dozen games is far more advanced, especially for the level, than what I remember when last seeing him live.

I have not seen Montero live since his days in Trenton during the 2009 season. I also saw him play quite a bit when he was with Charleston in 2008. Back then, Montero showed lots of promise with good pitch recognition (laying off junk away) and power to both to left field and the opposite way. After Montero hit a bomb in the first game of a series in Lakewood, NJ, I was also at this game later in the series where Montero tripled to deep right center, a line drive that kept going, where Phillies top prospect Domonic Brown dove for the ball but just missed making the catch.

Brown was injured on the play and had to be removed from the game, with Montero getting his only triple that season.

Montero was impressive then and is still impressive now. There was much to like back then, but even more to like from what I have seen in his first half-dozen major league games.

What I like now in late 2011 is the new stance, a stance more balanced and compact. If you watch that video from 2008, Montero is more upright with less flex (or bend) in the knees. From viewing Montero at different points of his career, he changes his batting stance quite a bit. While I have not seen him live since 2009, I have seen quite a bit of video.

In this June 2009 video from his first game in Double-A Trenton, Montero has a very  low crouch, similar to what Jeff Bagwell used, a stance where the hitter needs tremendous leg strength and trunk rotation to be continuously effective. This is due to a hitter having a tendency to “lift up” his body out of the low crouch, causing a change in the ball plane and pulling off the ball. The result is usually infield/short outfield popups to the opposite side. Montero does all that in this video.

A hitter needs to hit down and through the ball, not by lifting up his body.

Montero kept this stance in early 2010, by still incorporating the wide base but is not as far into the crouch.  He uses the inward to tap as a timing mechanism both times.

But then something changed mid-season after Montero slumped May through July. He changed again in late 2010, still wide but more upright and very open. Notice how he is higher on his front toe, eliminated the smaller toe tap but used a higher leg kick.

Also notice the change in uniform numbers from 45 early in 2010 to 21 during the August 2010 videos. Sometimes hitters will do anything to change their results. But this showed me a hitter who was unsure of himself and looking for something “lucky” to help him.

In 2011 spring training it was more of the same upright stance on the front toe. But in April 2011, Montero began to use a version of his current stance. He is more balanced with a solid base (not rocking on the higher front toe), a better foundation to use his efficient load and quick hands. That April 9, 2011 home run to left field is literally a perfect swing.

Now that Montero is in the majors (hopefully for good), look for him to stop changing stances and work with Kevin Long to continue with the KLong style: balanced with a solid base, more flex in the knees, hands just off the back shoulder. This is very similar to how Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson and now Andruw Jones all hit. It is amazing how Alex and Andruw now have very similar stances.

Montero has very quick hands and keeps his hands back well, especially on off-speed pitches even after he partially collapses his front side. Several times in his young major league career Montero was “fooled” on an off-speed pitch, but was still able to hit the ball hard because his hands were still back in the launch position. Hitting is two distinct parts. First you stride, then you swing, but the interesting part is they work in unison.

Montero keeps his hands back very well.

Knowing his hands are quick also allows Montero to let the ball get deeper in the zone. Along with good hip rotation, this is why Montero has so much power the opposite way. To be a good hitter, you need to allow outside pitches to travel farther to the plate before making contact. It is impossible to hit the ball consistently well on outside pitches if you hit them out in front of the plate like you would on an inside pitch.

But there are always concerns with young players. After the two opposite field home runs, and the long single off the right field wall, all the talk was whether Montero would be able to handle inside fastballs from major league pitchers.

Newsflash: very few hitters like the fastball in tight on their hands. The main reason why hitters can jump on a hard fastball on the inner third and hit the ball hard is many times they are looking for that pitch in a certain count and “cheat” a little by opening up. That is how some left handed hitters can hit Mariano’s cutter on the inside corner once in a while. They look for it and attack.

Another key on the inside fastball is to bring your hands in closer to your body during the swing to be able to get the barrel of the bat on the ball well in front of the plate.

Just over a month ago with Brian Cashman in attendance, Montero hit a 97 MPH fastball for a home run to left field. He can hit the inside fastball, and showed again Friday night with his home run to left field off of Jered Weaver. At 88 MPH, it wasn’t an overly fast pitch but was up and on the inside corner, a tough pitch for any hitter to mash.

With two strikes, it seemed Montero was looking for that particular inside pitch. This shows his ability to adjust to how he expects opposing pitchers to work him.

Montero has shown great plate discipline. I like Montero’s aggressiveness on hittable fastballs in the strike zone, and despite the first major league pitch he saw, Montero doesn’t chase many pitches outside the zone. With the bases loaded that first plate appearance, he was overly aggressive during that first pitch against Jon Lester. I believe Montero was swinging at that pitch no matter where it was, but tried to hold up when he saw it was two feet above the zone.

I imagine Montero was trying to become another Marcus Thames.

It impressed me that same first at bat when he took a couple two strike pitches out of the zone, one a fastball up and then a fastball away just off the plate. He also fouled back a couple hard insde fastballs off of Lester. However, the one pitch he seems to be susceptible is the low breaking ball from a lefty, striking out against Lester and Ricky Romero plus being out in front against Brett Cecil.

What I do not like is the fact that Montero will not get any playing time behind the plate. After Saturday night’s injury to Russell Martin, Girardi put Jorge Posada behind the plate. That is fine considering Montero was the DH that night and putting him behind the plate would have forced CC Sabathia (and all other pitchers) to bat.

But with Martin hurt and Francisco Cervelli having concussion symptoms, this would be a good time to have Montero catch a couple times a week, working with pitchers like Ivan Nova, who Montero has previously caught and a veteran like Bartolo Colon, a guy who throws lots of strikes.

While Montero’s qualities as a hitter, such as a solid, balanced stance, quick hands, knowledge of the strike zone and the ability to adjust will keep him in the majors for many years, his value will be enhanced by his ability to play a position (or two) and not just DH.

A few years ago, I ripped into Jorge Posada because he was being selfish by saying he only wanted to catch, not play first base. The idea of a team sport is to do anything to help your team, whether it play another position or teach the younger players how to be better players. Now that Posada has become more of a team player (with a little push from Joe Girardi earlier this year), it would be beneficial for the Yankees to use Montero in a multitude of roles to help the overall team.

Therefore, he needs to catch a few games a week, pick up a first baseman’s glove and learn to play there to give Teixeira a rest. That is what the St. Louis Cardinals did in 2001 when the 21 year old Albert Pujols was a rookie, when Prince Albert played four different positions to keep his potent bat in the lineup.

Montero may not seem like the best athlete in the world, but he does look more mobile now than he did earlier in the year. Also, he is still only 21 and has the youthfulness to get more athletic and become a better overall baseball player.

As I mentioned earlier, Montero’s bat will be around for a long time. He has hit everywhere he has played and will continue to hit in the majors. Cashman was correct in not trading him (and other prospects) for the likes of Jimenez, Wandy Rodriguez, Hiroki Kuroda or any other bums who would not have improved the Yankees this season.

I remember the July 31, 2011 NYBD radio show at the trading deadline when NYBD contributor (who from what I understand has a Yankee contact in Tampa who has never been correct on anything), said about Montero (at the 61:30 mark): “I don’t know why they didn’t trade him (Montero), I mean they could have gotten something for him…

What the hell does that mean? ”By something” did Russo mean a pedestrian, BELOW league average Ubaldo Jimenez? Or a crappy Ted Lilly or non-upgrade in Wandy Rodriguez? Russo even goes on at the 68:00 minute mark to say that “many people in the Yankee organization did not think Jimenez would translate well in the American League East.”

Then why would they want to trade their top prospects for him? I bet if Russo ran the Yankees since the time Cashman took over in 2005 the Yankees would be even worse than the Baltimore Orioles, and with a $350 million payroll. At that point, all the moat seats at the stadium would be empty.

During that same show Russo also said that “the bad guys won and by that I mean the Joe DelGrippo wing of the Yankees Universe.” I am glad Cashman did not trade Jesus Montero (and Ivan Nova plus others) for Ubaldo Jimenez, Wandy Rodriguez or any of the other bums the Russo faction of Yankees Universe wanted.

Since the respective teams do not win the World Series, trade deadline deals usually do not work out well for the teams getting the veterans.

Just ask the San Francisco Giants, who have lost 12.5 games off the standings since trading for Carlos Beltran, while Zack Wheeler has dominated the Florida State League since the trade.

Thus far Montero has performed well and should be a young, potent bat in the middle of the Yankee lineup for many years.

I am glad the Cashman/DelGrippo wing won this battle.


New York Yankees Looking At Cliff Lee & Carl Crawford; Pujols and Fielder Next?

December 3, 2010

Well, they are not really looking at Albert Pujols yet, as he is not a free agent until after this season.

But the Yankees have said all along their priority is Cliff Lee with GM Brian Cashman already meeting with the Lee family at their home in Arkansas. And yesterday Hank Steinbrenner said, “It’s no secret we want Cliff and we will do whatever it takes to get him. That’s the bottom line.”

That kind of statement doesn’t sound like the Yankees are trying to drive up the price for the Texas Rangers or Los Angeles Angels for the right to the left-handed hurler.

Lee, who lost his last two starts of the season during the 2010 World Series to the aggressive San Francisco Giants, appears to be guaranteed at least $23 million per season for six or seven years. Hank’s statement above indicates they are willing to go longer.

This has been quite the week for the Yankees.

They have re-signed Mariano Rivera to a two-year deal for $30 million. Talks with Derek Jeter’s agent Casey Close began again on Tuesday with the Yankees supposedly upping their offer. Both sides met again on Friday, and things appear even better.

As I have said many times, Jeter will be re-signed by the Yankees before the Winter Meetings. Cashman wants to concentrate solely on the free agent possibilities without hordes of Jeter questions.

And the Yankees almost pulled off a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in a swap of catchers. Francisco Cervelli was headed to LA-LA land for the overrated Russell Martin, a guy whose OPS has rapidly declined each of the last several seasons.

All for the privilege of paying Martin a few million bucks while playing bad baseball. Now that Martin is essentially a free agent after being non-tendered, they maybe can get him much cheaper, maybe Sergio Mitre money—double what Cervelli earns.

Did you even know that while Cervelli will be cheaper for the Yankees this season and the pitchers like working with him, the Kid had an even higher OPS than Martin each of the last two seasons? Cervelli even slugged higher than Martin did each season.

Look it up, I’ll wait.

Now the Yankees have inquired with OF Carl Crawford’s representatives and both sides could meet at the Winter Meetings next week.

Why not? The expensive seats in the New-New Yankees Stadium were almost full for the playoffs. They have the cash.

But even if you have the cash, why is there a hole burning in the Yankees pocket to spend it on other teams players?

They don’t need Carl Crawford, especially at about $17-20 million per year. Brett Gardner is fine out in LF; he gets on base, plays great defense and will probably be the full time lead off hitter in 2011.

Yankees don’t need Crawford, but it sure looks like they want him.

I drive a Toyota Avalon. It is a nice car and gets me around the block and to the ball fields in Scranton, Trenton and Staten Island. It is not what I want. I want a Ferrari (black by the way), but I can’t afford a Ferrari.

And the Yankees can’t afford Crawford and Lee after signing Mariano for $15 million per year and Jeter for a minimum of $17 million per year. After the two first ballot HOFers are in the stable, that would give the Yankees an existing payroll of $176 million, not including Andy Pettitte, not including the arbitration-eligible guys.

After the Mitre deal, arb-eligible players includes Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Boone Logan. Predictions run as high as $8 million for those three.

If the Yankees sign both Lee and Crawford, it would add around $40 million per season, probably a few dollars more. That gives the Yankees $224 million before Pettitte.

That is $224 million plus about $20-$30 million in luxury tax.

In 2012, the Yankees would have eliminated Jorge Posada from the payroll but will still have $107 million plus Jeter, Mo, Lee and Crawford and raises for Granderson and a Swisher option for 2012.  

Trade somebody? Who? Swisher? What are you going to get for him? Well, maybe the Yanks can buyout Swisher’s contract for the million bucks after 2012. They could waive AJ and hope someone takes him, saving a zillion dollars and a bunch of future blow ups.

Then what about when Cano’s deal comes up in his age 30 year after his 2013 option? How much will he deserve when he has a few more seasons like 2010?

Maybe $20 million, how about $25 million per? Then after Hughes has another 18-win season, what is he going to earn?

Isn’t this getting out of hand? When does this end for the Yankees? Does every player on their starting nine have to have eight figure salaries?

Why not sign Pujols next season for a 1B/3B/DH guy as a rover? They can trade all their young prospects for Prince Fielder to be a power lefty off the bench. The team doesn’t need all the prospects since they are not promoting their own but signing other teams best players.

I know all these free agent signings (and highly unlikely trades mentioned above) will get Doug Rush’s tighty-whities at half staff, but signing Lee and Crawford would force the Yankees into a terrible financial bind through the next decade.  

And, in a young man’s game, more than half their roster will be in their mid-30s.

Yeah, I am sure that Lee’s couple of back issues over the last few years are nothing. And Crawford running and playing all those games on the carpeted concrete in the Trop in Tampa won’t affect his speed or quality of play in 2013 and beyond.

I find it very hard to root against guys like Crawford and Lee, then have to turn around and have to root for them (for the benefit of my favorite team) over the next half decade.

I appreciate the work that CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira put in as Yankee players, but they are not nearly as big fans of theirs as I am for Jeter, Cano, Pettitte, Posada, Gardner, Hughes and Mariano.

AJ Burnett I could care less about and actually root against him.  

I frankly don’t want the Yankees to sign Lee or Crawford, the Yankees do not need them. They won 95 games last season without either one and will not have to go up against Crawford 19 times a year when the Angels sign him.

I believe (hope?) the Yankees are just blowing smoke on Crawford. They like to play the cloak and dagger stuff to the hilt and it seems are trying to bankrupt the Boston Red Sox.

The idea in spending big money on contracts is to re-sign your own players you want to keep (Rivera and Jeter). Or you extend even younger guys beyond their arbitration seasons and perhaps a few free agent years (Cano, Hughes?). It is not to sign other teams best players every other season.

Except if Albert Pujols becomes available, then the Yanks can move Alex to DH, Tex to third and leave Pujols at first or maybe let Albert play 3B.

Until Evan Longoria becomes available in 2017.


The One Man Who Can Stop Albert Pujols From Winning the Triple Crown

August 25, 2010

During Monday night’s St. Louis Cardinals loss to the last-place (and worst record in baseball) Pittsburgh Pirates, Albert Pujols was 3-for-5 with a double, raising his batting average to .322.

I know this stat is not important to saber heads (please bear with us), but for this argument it is imperative.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, Cincinnati’s Joey Votto went 1-for-4 in a 13-5 drubbing by the now offensively resurgent San Francisco Giants. That effort dropped Votto’s season average to .323, a single point above Pujols.

With Pujols ahead in the National League in home runs (33) and RBI (92), the batting crown is the only leg of the Triple Crown he doesn’t lead.

Adan Dunn, with 31 jacks, and Votto, with 29 dingers, are right behind Phat Albert in the HR race. And with 86 RBI, Votto is six back of Pujols, I believe Albert is safe in both power departments. He is on a roll with the power and when that happens, usually a tidal wave of home runs (and RBI) ensue.

In fact, Albert’s August barrage of nine home runs, 20 RBI while hitting .436 is what has put him back into the Triple Crown race.

While Votto is leading with a .323 average entering Wednesday’s games, Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez is currently hitting .319, while Atlanta’s Martin Prado is at .317. Both could also end up with a higher average than Pujols in his quest to become baseball’s first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastremski in 1967*.

*If you have never looked into Yaz’ stretch run in 1967, when he was not only attempting to win the Triple Crown, but more importantly, trying to lead Boston to the AL Pennant, you need to look into it. It is perhaps the best clutch performance of any player of all time.  

While fending off Detroit, Minnesota, and Chicago (what no Yankees?) in a four-team race for the pennant, Yaz went 7-for-8 in his final two games with a double, HR, and six RBI including a 4-for-4 performance on the final day. During the September stretch run, Yaz hit .417 with nine homers, but hit .541 with four homers and 14 RBI over the last 10 games.

It was truly a remarkable performance.

Pujols is starting to turn it on with his incredible month of August, but it is probably the batting average category which could forestall any thoughts of a Triple Crown.

But despite all of Pujols’s greatness, there is one guy who can keep Albert from winning the Triple Crown. Joey Votto, right?

Wrong.

It is Omar Infante of the Atlanta Braves.

What? Yes, you saw it correctly. Infante is the one player who can keep Pujols from winning this year’s Triple Crown.

Entering today, Infante is hitting .349 this season as a utility player for the first place Braves, and was having such a fine season at the break, he even made his first All-Star team.

But he only has 342 plate appearances thus far, and with the Braves already playing 126 games, Infante currently needs 391 to qualify (3.1 plate appearances per team game played).

Infante is not just a utility player anymore, and has been a regular in Bobby Cox’s lineup since late July. And he is not slowing down now that he is a regular. He has hit a robust .370/.400/.560/.960 OPS clip for August (37-for-100) with four home runs.

This is coming off him hitting .429 in July (27-for-63).

With Atlanta only 2.5 games ahead of Philadelphia, Cox has no reason not to play the red-hot Infante every day. With Chipper Jones out for the season, Infante is now the starting second baseman, with Martin Prado moving from second over to third.

Even when Troy Glaus comes back, I still see Infante in the lineup every day until the end of the season. 

So let’s do the math.

Infante has 342 plate appearances, but needs 502 to qualify for the batting title. For a conservative estimate, lets give him four plate appearances for each of the next 36 games the Braves have left.

That will allow for some games of five PA, while he may sit a game to get some rest. He may even be dropped in the batting order, who knows? He has hit in every spot in the lineup this season but fifth, but has been in the leadoff spot the last couple weeks.

That gives him another 144 plate appearances (36 games x 4 PA per = 144), and add that to his current 342 would give Infante 486 PA for the season. That is still 16 PA short of qualifying for the title.

Lets also say that Infante (even after his very hot July and August), hits only around .320 the rest of the way. Infante does not walk much (another no-no for any saber head HOF consideration), so lets say all his 144 PA become actual at bats.  

If Infante gets 46 hits in his 144 remaining at bats (a .319 average), he will end up .33978 for the season (158 for 465). This leads Votto and Pujols at their current averages for the batting title.

But under our situation, Infante is still 16 PA short of a title. This is where playing with the numbers comes into play. Major League Baseball rules regarding a batting title state in order to become eligible, a player must accumulate 3.1 PA for every team games played, or 502 PA.

But if the player with the highest average in a league fails to meet the minimum plate-appearance requirement, the remaining at-bats until qualification are hypothetically considered hitless at-bats; if his recalculated batting average still tops the league, he is awarded the title.

Thus if we give Infante an additional 16 “hitless” at-bats to a total of 481, he would then have a batting average of .32848, still about five points higher than Votto or Pujols is hitting right now. Reduce Infante by one hit, and his average would then be .32640. Reduce by another hit (only 156 hits/481 AB) would reduce his average to .32432, still slightly above where Votto and Pujols are.

This tactic of adding “hitless” at-bats was started in 1967, and was implemented most recently in 1996 when Tony Gwynn won the batting title while only having 498 PA.

I believe Infante will hit around .320 (or better) the rest of the season, and pose an issue for the batting title and possible Pujols Triple Crown. At the end of the season with an average in the .326 to .333 range—after the hitless at bats are added.

This is all moot, of course, if Votto or Dunn, Gonzalez, or even Martin Prado gets hot at their specialties and pushes Pujols out of one or more of the other two categories. 

Throw in a Cincinnati and St. Louis Divisional race down the stretch and the last six weeks become even more interesting for Pujols, Votto, and the rest of the National League.


Top 20 Rookie of the Year Seasons Over the Last 35 Years

April 15, 2010

Atlanta Braves 20 year old outfielder Jason Heyward made the opening day lineup and has begun to produce immediate results with three home runs and ten runs batted in.

Other recently drafted, under-25 players such as Brian Matusz of the Baltimore Orioles, Wade Davis of the Tampa Bay Rays and Alcides Escobar of the Milwaukee Brewers began the 2010 season in the majors.

But other young players such as Washington Nationals RHP’s Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen, Pittsburgh’s Pedro Alvarez, San Francisco’s Buster Posey, Texas’ Justin Smoak, Cleveland’s catcher Carlos Santana (.423, 4 HR’s, 8 RBI’s) and Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman, started the season in the minor leagues but expect to contribute to their parent clubs in 2010.

With the influx of solid young talent, and many teams willing to give these youngsters a good opportunity, it reminds us here at Bleacher Report of the best and most influential rookie seasons over the last 35 years.

With 70 different Rookie of the Year (ROY) winners over this term, there will be plenty of arguments on what are the best rookie seasons.  Also, these “Best Seasons” include only those for winners of the ROY, so Chipper Jones’ great 1995 season is not included, neither are Troy Tulowitzki’s 2007 season, Todd Helton’s 1998 season, Kent Hrbek’s 1982 season or Tim Raines’ 1981 initial season.

All those players finished second for ROY.

But the winners of the award in all those seasons are included.

Many of the ROY winners here were dominant in their leagues that season and made this list. However, others who made this list might not have had a great season, but those players began a trend or their arrival began a nice run of success for their teams.

It is definitely not solely about numbers, but also about influence and importance.

Winning the Rookie of the Year award is not an indication of future greatness. Only 15 of the 124 ROY winners have made the Hall of Fame, but about a half dozen others are likely to enter.

Enjoy and let the arguing begin.

 #20 Dontrelle Willis – 2003 Florida Marlins

Dontrelle started 27 games in 2003, fashioning a 14-6 record to go along with a 3.30 ERA. The 21-year old Willis was important to that 2003 Marlins team, giving them five quality starters all under the age of 30, eventually helping the Fish to an improbable World Series title against the mighty New York Yankees.

Willis’ highlight year came two seasons later when he went 22-9 and finished second in the 2005 National League Cy Young voting.

While Willis’ career has fizzled in recent years, he is expected to make a push this season for Comeback Player of the Year for the Detroit Tigers, winning a starting rotation spot out of spring training.

He is a solid fifth starter who is still only 28.

#19 Andrew Bailey – 2009 Oakland A’s

Bailey came out of nowhere to become the 2009 closer for the Oakland A’s. A team struggling to fix a newly designed bullpen, Bailey found his role as former closer Huston Street was traded to Colorado. While several other pitchers were ineffective, Bailey dominated in March and made the team out of spring training. 

He continued his dominance during the season, posting a 6-3 record, 1.84 ERA, 26 saves and miniscule 0.876 WHIP.

This rookie season is important in that a pitcher who nobody ever heard of prior to 2009, makes the majors out of his first spring training and dominates a hitting friendly American League in a pressure packed role.

Bailey was the top rookie in an impressive crop of 2009 first year American League players, and won the ROY award beating out other outstanding freshmen such as Elvis Andrus, Rick Porcello, Jeff Niemann and Gordon Beckham.

He has continued his impressive major league career by not allowing a run in four appearances thus far in 2010.

#18 Andrew Dawson, Montreal Expos/Eddie Murray, Baltimore Orioles – 1977 Rookies of The Year

This spot goes to the two rookies of the year in 1977, Andre Dawson of the Montreal Expos and Eddie Murray of the Baltimore Orioles.

This is the only third time that both ROY winners in an individual season have become baseball Hall of Famers. The other seasons were in 1956 with Frank Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds and Luis Aparicio of the Chicago White Sox; and in 1967 with Tom Seaver of the New York Mets and Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins. 

While Dawson and Murray were the third rookie of the year duo to make the Hall of Fame, they will not be the last as a few other possibilities exist, including one virtual lock.

Dawson will join the others in Cooperstown later this year when he is inducted into the Hall this August.

#17 Justin Verlander – 2006 Detroit Tigers

This former #2 overall draft pick has cemented himself as one of the top pitchers in baseball. The only reason he is with Detroit is that San Diego did not want to deal with Scott Boras, but Verlander’s father stepped into the Tigers negotiations and hammerd out the deal.

Verlander has never looked back.

Justin was promoted very quickly up to the majors, and dominated at times during his first full season in 2006. Not only did he fashion a 17-9 record with a 3.63 ERA his rookie season, but spun a complete game shutout at Kansas City.

More impressively, Verlander allowed one or fewer runs in 15 of the 30 starts that year and had the most wins and lowest ERA on a World Series team. He was nearly a unanimous AL ROY beating out Jonathan Papelbon and Francisco Liriano.

Verlander has extremely clean mechanics which will allow him to consistently put up 33 start, 220+ inning seasons without injury.

His future as a dominant pitcher should last for another 10 seasons or as long as Verlander wishes to continue.

#16 Bob Horner – 1978 Atlanta Braves

Bob Horner was the 1977 College World Series MVP and the first ever winner of the Golden Spikes award as the best collegiate player in the nation.

Horner was a major power threat and he set records for most home runs in a collegiate season (25) and in a career (58).

He was drafted first overall pick by the Atlanta Braves in the 1978 draft, and played his first major league game a few weeks later. In his first game, Horner homered off of Bert Blyleven. He finished his first abbreviated major league season with 23 homers, 63 RBI’s and won the NL ROY award over Ozzie Smith.

Horner never played a single game in the minor leagues.

Horner went directly from the Arizona State University campus to the major leagues, switching from metal to wood bats, and never mised a beat.

His 1978 rookie season was a classic season, which he became the first position player to go directly from college to the major leagues since Dave Winfield five years earlier.

A career 124 OPS+ indicates his impressive power ability, while his 162 game average season was for 35 home runs and 109 RBI’s in 600 at bats.

Although injuries (including breaking his right wrist twice) curtailed a HOF caliber talent, when Horner was healthy, he teamed with Dale Murphy (who came up a season earlier) to form the most feared 4/5 hitters in any lineup.

#15 – Ichiro Suzuki – 2001 Seattle Mariners

It is amazing to realize that Ichiro (the only player who has his FIRST name on the back of his jersey), has been in the major leagues now for ten seasons.

Although I really do not consider major league players from other countries as rookies (and thus should not be eligible for ROY), this was Ichiro’s first year in the majors after nine seasons in Japan’s Pacific League.

In 2001, Ichiro led all players with 242 hits, and hit .350 while stealing 56 bases.

His first year in the U.S. major leagues is important because Ichiro became only the second position player to make the Japan to U.S. transition, but was the first player to succeed in America.

This success paved the way for other foreign born postion players to play in the United States.

Ichiro is the first Japanese player in the U.S. to make the Japanese Hall of Fame, and is a virtual lock for the MLB Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. 

#14 Cal Ripken, Jr. – 1982 Baltimore Orioles

Cal Ripken is the rare player who grew up in the shadows of his hometown team, was drafted and became a superstar for that same team.

As a Baltimore Oriole for his entire career, Ripken went on to a member of the 400 HR, 3000 hit club, and became a first ballot HOFer.

His rookie year was sensational with 28 home runs, 93 RBI’s which led to a Hall of Fame career, only the fifth American League player (and thus far the last) to win the ROY award and enter the Hall.

Coming up as a tall (6″4″) power hitting shortstop, Ripken revolutionized the shortstop postion. Up unilt Ripken cam eup, the shortstop position was very much an all-field, very little hit position.

Ripken’s success lead other teams to begin developing similarly built shortstops, which permeate the major league landscape even to this day.

Cal is the rare player to play entirely for one team, and one of the greatest shortstops in baseball history.

#13 Huston Street

The 2002 draft was the last big high school draft. That season saw eight of the first 11 players taken were high school guys. After that season talent evaluators began to think more of drafting college players.

Entering the 2004 draft, Huston Street was the most accomplished college relief pitcher of all time, and in 2002 he was voted College World Series MVP as he led his Texas Longhorns team to the title.

Street made the majors ealry inthe 2005 season, becoming the AL ROY with a stellar 5-1 record, 1.72 ERA and 1.009 WHIP. Only Mariano Rivera had better numbers that season as a closer.

Street’s rookie year success began a resurgance in recent college draftees being promoted to the major leagues very quickly. Other players like Troy Tulowitski, Justin Verlander, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun, Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, David Price and Matt Wieters made similar early jumps to the major leagues after Street’s meteoric rise.    

Currently on the disabled list with an arm issue, Street will eventually be back to his old form, but Street began the standard for the drafting of college players to make and immediate impact on major league rosters.

#12 Hideo Nomo – 1995 Los Angeles Dodgers

Hideo Nomo played major league baseball in Japan for five seasons before becoming the first Japanese player to play in the major leagues in 30 years.

His rookie year saw Nomo go 13-6, 2.54 ERA and 1.056 WHIP. His deceptively delayed delivery and tremendous fork ball allowed Nomo to strike out 236 hitters in only 191 innings.

Currently retired, Nomo’s success in the United States prompted many more Japanese stars such as Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Diasake Matsuzaka to come over and play in the U.S.

#11 David Justice – 1990 Atlanta Braves

When David Justice came up to the Atlanta Braves in 1990, it is no coincidence that the Braves made the playoffs a year later in 1991, beginning a streak of 14 straight playoff appearances. Justice’s arrival in Atlanta added power to a lineup which only had Ron Gant to provide home run production.

He did win the NL ROY award in 1990 with his .282/.373/.535/.908 OPS line, at that time one of the highest OPS marks for a first year player.

The Braves did win with pitching as Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery and then Greg Maddux dominated lineups, but Justice provided power and an ability to get the huge hit for a team which was built on pitching and defense. 

Justice was an outspoken leader throughout his career, helping six teams get to the World Series, winning the title twice. His arrival in Atlanta helped that franchise win for the next 15 seasons.

#10 Bob Hamelin – 1994 Kansas City Royals

Throughout the 1994 season, the Royals though they had their power hitting first baseman of the future. Hamelin was a slugger who also hit for average.

Hamelin’s rookie line of .282/.388/.599/.907 OPS was very impressive with his 23 home runs and 65 RBI’s, winning the 1994 AL ROY award over some guy named Manny Ramirez. 

But Hamelin went on to have various leg injuries and only hit 41 more home runs in his career.

The Royals has three AL ROY winners from 1994 through 2003, with Carlos Beltran winning in 1999, and Angel Berroa taking home honors in 2003.

But typical of the Royals over the last twenty years, they develop a decent player and either they fizzle out like Hamelin and Berroa or succeed like Beltran, but then are traded away.

Hamelin was the first of the Royals rookie stars to fizzle out, leading to a continuation of bad seasons for a once proud franchise.

#9 Kerry Wood – 1998 Chicago Cubs

Wood was a top draft pick (#4 overall) in the the 1995 draft, and three seasons later was the top starting pitcher on an almost comletely veteran staff.

Wood started 26 games, striking out 233 batters in 166 innings, with a 13-6 record, 3.40 ERA and 1.212 WHIP. His fifth start in the big leagues tied a record with 20 whiffs in a single game. It is considered one of the msot dominant pitching performances of all time.

Wood was shut down late inthe season with elbow soreness, but still did well enough to garner the ROY award, beating out Colorado Rockies slugger Todd Helton.

The elbow injury proved more severe as Wood underwent TommyJohn surgery in spring training 1999, missing that entire season. He came back to dominate again in 2003, teaming with Mark Prior to lead the Cubs to the 2003 NL Pennant.

After that season, Wood and Prior suffered sever arm injuries and neither player would regain his dominant starting stuff.

Many people blame manager Jim Riggleman’s use of Wood in that 20 strikeout performance (Wood threw 122 pitches) as the beginning of the babying of starting pitchers via pitch counts and innings limits. Wood would throw seven more games of more than 120 pitches that season, with a 133 pitch performance in his penultimate start before his elbow issues surfaced.

Because of these injuries, which I believe are more the result of Wood’s violent delivery than overuse, Wood never fulfilled what was a promising power-pitcher, major league career.

#8 Derek Jeter – 1996 New York Yankees

The Yankees had a good team in 1994 and 1995, but lacked strength up the middle. Tony Fernandez (SS) and Pat Kelly (2B) were good defensive players but more offense was needed.

Enter Mariano Duncan for Kelly, and 21 year old Derek Jeter for Fernandez. Jeter began his rookie campaign with a home run off of 245 game winner Dennis Martinez,a nd a great over the shoulder catch in shoret left field.

That type of catch would become one of Jeter’s trademark defensive plays.

Jeter went on to hit .314/.370/.430/.800 OPS with 10 home runs and 104 runs scored. He was a unanimous selection for ROY.

His early success helped the Yankees win their first World Series title in 12 seasons, and Jeter was the main position player during a 15 year run of excellence that rivals the best teams of all time.

Jeter is approaching 3,000 career hits and shows no signs of slowing down. If healthy, Jeter could get into the top 10 in career hits, and possibly top 5. He will be a first ballot Hall of Famer and could better Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan’s percentage of Hall of Fame votes of 98.8%.

#8 Ryan Braun – 2007 Milwaukee Brewers

Ryan Braun was a high draft pick (#4 overall) for the Brewers, and moved up to the majors leagues after only 340 at bats above Class A minor league baseball.

His bat was a terror for National League pitchers in his rookie 2007 season, and Braun put up a torrid line of .324/.370/.634/1.004 OPS with 34 home runs and 97 RBI’s. His .634 slugging percentage  (SLG) led the NL in 2007, and was the highest slugging percentage for any rookie in baseball history.

If it wasn’t for fellow 2005 first round draft pick Troy Tulowitzki, Braun likely would have been a unanimous ROY selection.

Braun’s presence in the Brewers lineup gave them a potent lefty – righty duo with Prince Fielder, and help lead the Brew Crew to their first playoff appearance in 26 years a season later.

Braun has all the potential to be a major offensive force for the next 10-12 seasons where he has the potential to hit over 500 home runs with better than a .300 career average.

Only nine other player in history have done that.

#6 Mike Piazza – 1993 Los Angeles Dodgers

A rookie year line of .318/.370/.561/.932 OPS with 35 home runs and 112 RBI’s. Not bad for a former 62nd round draft pick, right?

Mike Piazza made the most of his late round drafting as a favor to his brothers godfather, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda.

Mike was the second of a record five straight ROY winners to come from one team, the Dodgers. It ws not the first time the Dodgers had a string of winners as they also has a run of four straight ROY winning seasons from 1979-1982.

What Piazza’s (and the other four winners did) was establish a base of young talent for the Dodgers, allowing the team to win two division titles and finish second twice. That is what good teams do; they develop their own talent. It works to set a foundation for winning.

Piazza is widely regarded as the best hitting catcher of all-time, with Johnny Bench, Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra all fighting for second place.

He will be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

#5 – Mark McGwire – 1987 Oakland A’s

Long before the steroid allegations, and subsequent admission, Mark McGwire was a power hitter extraordinaire. During his rookie season in 1987, Big Mac hit a record 33 home runs before the All-Star break, and, ironically, there was a tremendous amount of talk whether McGwire would break Roger Maris’ long held record of 61.

But while McGwire quieted down from the long grind of a baseball season, he still managed to hit 49 home runs, breaking the rookie home run record. Mark also drove in 118 runs and slugged .618, a rookie record until Ryan Braun came along.

Mac helped the Oakland A’s to three straight World Series appearances, winning the earthquake interrupted 1989 Series.

Whether HOF voters allow Big Mac entry into Cooperstown’s hallowed Hall remains to be seen, but his recent admission of such steroid use basically eliminated all the questions.

As with his rookie HR record, Big Mac has set the standard with voters during the steroid era. I doubt that he will see entry anytime soon, thus indicating how the voters will react to the entire steroid era.

#4 Dwight (Doc) Gooden – 1984 New York Mets

Similar to the #2 season, Dwight (Doc) Gooden was a young pitcher who burst upon the major league scene in dominating fashion. Brought up to the majors as a 19 year old rookie in 1984, Doc used a power fastball and knee buckling curve ball to set a rookie pitching record of 276 strikeouts, breaking Herb Score’s record set 30 years prior.

Gooden’s arrival transformed the Mets from 6th place also rans in 1983 to a strong second place finish in 1984. The Mets then went on to finish first or second for seven straight seasons after Gooden’s arrival, including winning the 1986 World Series Championship.

Off field issues curtailed what was definitely a Hall of Fame career, but when Gooden was young, and that fast ball was popping and that curve ball was snapping, at the time there was no one better.

He was the Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax of his era. 

Similar to the #2 season on this list, Dwight (Doc) Gooden was a young pitcher who burst upon the major league scene in dominating fashion. Brought up to the majors as a 19 year old rookie in 1984, Doc used a power fastball and knee buckling curve ball to set a rookie pitching record of 276 strikeouts, breaking Herb Score’s record set 30 years prior.

Gooden’s arrival transformed the Mets from 6th place also rans in 1983 to a strong second place finish in 1984. The Mets then went on to finish first or second for seven straight seasons after Gooden’s arrival, including winning the 1986 World Series Championship.

Off field issues curtailed what was definitely a Hall of Fame career, but when Gooden was young, and that fast ball was popping and that curve ball was snapping, at the time there was no one better.

He was the Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax of his era. 

#3 Fred Lynn – 1975 Boston Red Sox

Despite the success the Boston Red Sox have had this last decade, there were various times the franchise was terrible. They made the World Series in 1967, but finished no better than third in five of the next seven seasons. It was not until 1975, and the arrival of 23 year old Fred Lynn, that the Red Sox again made the World Series.

Lynn put up a rookie line of .331/.401/.566/.967 OPS, leading the league in slugging and OPS, and finishing second to Rod Carew in batting average. He also made a couple dozen spectacular catches in center field and won the Gold Glove that year and in three other seasons.

Not only did Lynn win the 1975 AL ROY award, but was also a runaway winner for the 1975 AL MVP award, too.

The 1975 season was the height of my baseball life as a kid (I was 11) and Lynn was very special, seemingly winning games for the Sox via a big hit or amazing catch.

Despite an injury bug which did not allow Lynn to play in more than 150 games in any season, he still had a very good career including the Joe Mauer Triple Crown in 1979, leading the AL in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

A very solid career for Lynn, with just over 300 home runs and 1111 RBI’s, but many wonder what could have been.

#2 Fernando Valenzuela – 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers

You had to be there to appreciate the control that Fernando Valenzuela had over the hitters in the National League AND the entire baseball world.

He was similar to Babe Ruth in stature, both in his popularity and in his physique. Like the Babe, Valenzuela was also a pretty good hitter

After being signed out of the Mexican League, Valenzuela was promoted in late 1980 during the Los Angeles Dodgers pennant run, where he posted a 2-0 record, 1 save, and a 0.00 ERA in 10 relief appearances (17.2 innings). 

Fernando followed that up with greatest eight start stretch to open a major league baseball season. In his first eight starts of the 1981 season, Fernando threw eight complete games, including five shutouts! Two other games he allowed only one run and after eight starts his ERA stood at 0.50.

And as a strikeout pitcher (four of his eight starts were double digit strikeout games) Valenzuela likely threw over 120 pitches in each start. Surprisingly, even by throwing his devastating screwball most of the time, his arm did not fall off.

Joe Girardi and other current managers should take note.

Add in the two wins and 17.2 scoreless innings from late in 1980, and after his first 18 major league appearances, Valenzuela had a 10-0 record with a 0.37 ERA.

His success spurred a phenomenon called Fernandomania, and while the Los Angeles Latino community were already big baseball fans, after “El Toro” (Valenzuela’s nickname) came alive, the Latin fans were now out rooting in full force.

Fernando’s patented delivery (see photo) included him “looking to the sky” before every pitch was in itself a separate phenomenon.

Fernando only went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA, but he missed two months worth of starts due to the 1981 players strike.

His rookie year was amazing and I remember my junior year in high school, hanging out with friends at someone’s house on May 8th, watching that Friday night game Fernando pitched against the New York Mets.

A bad Met team (managed by Joe Torre) drew almost 40,000 fans that night to see Valenzuela and he did not disappoint, posting his 8th straight win and fifth shutout.

While he was only a 173-153, 3.54 ERA pitcher for his career, those first seven seasons were tremendous including a 21-11 mark in 1986. While he was dropped from the Hall of Fame voting in 2004, his early career, and the madness which ensued, were definitely Hall of Fame worthy.

#1 Albert Pujols – 2001 St. Louis Cardinals

For the young fans who wish they saw Ted Williams hit in his prime, you really are, but he hits from  the right handed batters box and he goes not by the nickname of “The Splendid Splinter,” “The Kid” or “Teddy Ballgame” but by the nickname of “Phat Albert,” “King Albert” or “The Machine.”

Similar to Ted Williams, Albert Pujols has several nicknames.

It is amazing to think that in Spring Training of 2001, Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa wanted to send Pujols down to the minors for more seasoning. But while Mark McGwire was petitioning LaRussa to keep Pujols, the Cardinals third basemen, Bobby Bonilla, was injured and Albert started the season at third base.

He would play four different positions that rookie season for the Cardinals, starting 32 or more games at third base, first base, left field and right field. He also batted .329/.403/.610/.1.013 OPS with 37 HR’s and 130 RBI’s.

Pujols was a unanimous choice for NL ROY.

Albert has continued his dominance over the next decade, winning three NL MVP awards and finishing second three times. In two of those three runner up seasons Pujols finished behind Barry Bonds.

Make your own judgments.

Only Williams, Joe DiMaggio and maybe Frank Robinson have had similar offensive beginnings to a career, dominating from thier first major league season. But unlike Williams, Albert Pujols has helped bring home a World Series title for his team, while Robinson has two titles and DiMaggio has an unbelievably amazing nine such championships.

When his career is over, Albert Pujols will be considered one of the greatest players of all time (likely top seven), and will be a first ballot Hall of Famer, probably recieving 95% or more of the vote.

But he needs to help the Cardinals win another World Series title to fulfill his career. This 2010 season could be the year.


New York Mets Pitcher John Maine’s Thursday Start Typical of Pitcher

March 26, 2010

On Thursday, March 25, 2010, John Maine may have taken his biggest step forward from the shoulder surgery he required 18 months ago.

According to this report, Mets manager Jerry Manuel was impressed by Maine in his third start this spring:

“He gave up a couple home runs, one early. I thought he had a good slider. But there was some life on that fastball, when starts to get all those foul balls back. I’m really excited that his arm is bouncing back. I thought today, even though you might not call that a ‘wow’ performance, I felt it was a competitive performance against a good-hitting lineup. That’s very, very serviceable for us compared to what we’ve been getting.”
 
Manuel said “when starts to get all those foul balls back.” If Manuel means when hitters are fouling back those fastballs, that is actually not a good sign as it shows that hitters are on his velocity, and are not fooled by the pitch. When hitters foul the ball off to the opposite side of the field (right handed hitters fouling balls off to the first base side), is when hitters are late on a fastball.

However, Maine threw five innings, allowing three hits and only the two runs from the homers.

That is all well and good, but I saw some typical Maineisms in the performance.

Maine was not in command. While he only walked two, he hit a batter and later threw a wild pitch. Command likely will not “you know… come back around,” for Maine as Manuel put it after the game.

It is not Maine’s history to have great command.

Manuel said that Maine had “some life on the fastball” and “had a good slider,” but he only struck out one Cardinal hitter. Not good for a pitcher who historically has issues with wildness.

The problem with Maine was never his arm strength (even after the surgery) or ability to have low hit performances. The biggest problem with Maine was consistently throwing strikes, hitting his spots and the propensity for allowing the big inning.

Maine has walked six batters, and also hit two in 11.1 spring innings thus far.

In allowing Pujols’ home run, Maine got behind Albert 2-0, then threw a “belt high 2-0 fastball.”

That is typical of Maine’s issues, not throwing strikes then pumping one in down the middle. With his career walk rates of 4 batters per 9 innings, and his reduced strikeout rates (8.5 per 9 in 2007, 7.8 in 2008, 6.1 in 2009), Maine can not afford to dance around the strike zone anymore.

Until he begins to strike out more hitters (only six in 11 spring innings), Maine needs to attack hitters, throwing strike one, and pitching more to contact.

If that does not happen, John Maine and the Mets are in for a long season on the hill…and in the standings.